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The Role and Influence of
Environmental and Cultural Factors
on the Academic Performance
of African American Males

Part 2 - Structural vs. Cultural Explanations

by Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

Structural vs. Cultural Explanations

Epidemiologists and psychologists have identified a number of risk factors within the social environment, which when combined, are thought to have a multiplier effect upon risk behavior. Growing up poor and in a single parent household; being exposed to substance abuse at a young age; living in a crime ridden neighborhood; lacking access to health care, adequate nutrition and decent housing; are just some of the variables that are most commonly cited (Earls 1991; Garbarino 1999). Similarly, anthropologists and sociologists have documented the ways in which certain cultural influences can lower the aspirations of Black males and contribute to their engagement in self destructive behavior. Some of these include community-based "folk theories" which suggest that because of the history of discrimination against Black people even those who work hard will never reap rewards equivalent to those earned by whites (Ogbu 1987). There is also evidence that many Black males view sports or music as more promising routes to upward mobility than academic pursuits (Hoberman, 1997). Finally, some researchers have found that for some African American students, doing well in school is perceived as a sign that one has "sold out" or opted to "act white" for the sake of individual gain (Ogbu 1990; Fordham 1996).

Yet, despite their importance and relevance to academic performance, risk variables and cultural pressures can not explain individual behavior. Confronted with a variety of obstacles and challenges, some Black males still find ways to survive, and in some cases, to excel. Interestingly, we know much less about resilience, perseverance, and the coping strategies employed by individuals whose lives are surrounded by hardships, than we do about those who succumb and become victims of their environment. Deepening our understanding of the ways in which individuals cope with and respond to their social environment and the cultural milieu in which they live and are socialized is an important part of finding ways to assist Black males with living healthy and productive lives.

In the social sciences, explanations of human behavior, especially that of the poor, has been the subject of considerable debate. Most often, the debate has centered on those who favor structural and those who prefer cultural explanations of behavior. The structuralists tend to focus their explanations of human behavior on political economy - the availability of jobs and economic opportunities, class structure and social geography (Wilson 1978; Wilson 1987; Massey and Denton 1993; Tabb 1970). From this perspective, individuals are viewed as products of their environment, and changes in individual behavior are seen as being made possible by changes in the structure of opportunity. As such, holding an individual responsible for their behavior makes little sense since behavior is shaped by forces beyond the control of any particular individual. In this regard, drug abuse, crime, and dropping out of school are seen largely as social consequences of inequality. According to this view, the most effective way to reduce objectionable behavior is to reduce the degree and extent of inequality in society.

In contrast, culturalists downplay the significance of environmental factors and treat human behavior as a product of beliefs, values, norms and socialization. Culturally based explanations of behavior tend to focus on the moral codes that operate within particular families, communities or groups (Anderson 1990). For example, the idea that poor people are trapped within a "culture of poverty" which has the effect of legitimizing criminal and immoral behavior, has been one of the most dominant perspectives on poverty among advocates of this perspective (Lewis 1966; Glazer and Moynihan 1963). For the culturalists, change in behavior can only be brought about through cultural change. Hence, providing more money to inner-city schools or bussing inner-city children to affluent suburban schools, will do little to improve their academic performance since their attitudes toward school are shaped by the culture they bring with them from home and their neighborhoods (Murray 1984). According to this view, culture provides the rationale and motivation for behavior, and cultural change is not brought about through changes in the environment or by merely expanding opportunities.

A growing number of researchers are trying to find ways to work between the two sides of the debate. Dissatisfied with the determinism of the structuralists which renders individuals into passive objects of larger forces, and what has been criticized as the "blame the victim" perspective of the culturalists because they view individuals as hopelessly trapped within a particular social/cultural milieu (Ryan 1976), these researchers have sought to synthesize important elements from both perspectives while simultaneously paying greater attention to the importance of individual choice and agency (Macleod 1987). From this perspective, the importance of both structure and culture is acknowledged but so too is the understanding that individuals have the capacity to act and make choices that can not be explained through the reductionism inherent in either framework (Morrow and Torres 1994). The choices made by an individual may be shaped by the opportunities available to him/her and by the norms present within the cultural milieu in which they are situated. However, culture is not static and individual responses to their environment can not be easily predicted. Choices and actions are influenced by both structural and cultural forces, but neither has the power to act as the sole determinant of behavior because human beings also have the ability to produce cultural forms which can counter these pressures (Willis 1977).

This is not to suggest that because individuals have the capacity to counter these forces that many will choose or be able to do so. The effects of poverty in particular can be so debilitating that a child's life chances can literally be determined by a number of environmental (e.g the quality of pre-natal care, housing and food available to their mothers) and cultural factors that are simply beyond the control of an individual or even of concerted community action. It would be naive and mistaken to conclude that strength of character and the possibility of individual agency can enable one to avoid the perils present within the environment, or that it is easy for individuals to choose to act outside the cultural milieu in which they were raised. Even as we recognize that individuals do make choices that influence the character of their lives, we must also recognize that the range of choices available are profoundly constrained and shaped by external forces. For this reason, efforts to counter behaviors that are viewed as injurious - whether it be dropping out of school, selling drugs, or engaging in violent behavior - must include efforts to comprehend the logic and motivations behind the behavior. Given the importance of agency and choice, the only way to change behavioral outcomes is to understand the cognitive processes which influence how individuals adapt, cope and respond.

As an example of the kind of research that is carving a niche between the structural and cultural explanations of human behavior I will cite the work of sociologist Kristen Luker (1996). In a comprehensive study of teen pregnancy, Luker demonstrates the possibility for synthesizing two perspectives that have traditionally been seen as irreconcilable. Teen pregnancy, which for years has been much more prevalent among poor minority girls than middle class white girls, has traditionally been explained as either the product of welfare dependency and permissive sexual mores (the culturalist), or as the unfortunate result of inadequate access to birth control and economic opportunities (the structuralists). Through detailed interviews with a diverse sample of teen mothers, Luker puts forward a different explanation which draws from both the cultural and the structural perspectives and also acknowledges the role and importance of individual choice. She points out that while both middle class and lower class girls engage in pre-marital sex and sometimes become pregnant, middle class girls are less likely to have babies during adolescence because they have a clear sense that it will harm their chance for future success. In contrast, when confronted with an unexpected pregnancy, poor girls are more likely to have babies because they do not perceive it as negatively affecting their future since college and a good job are already perceived as being out of reach. In fact, many girls in this situation actually believe that having a baby during adolescence will help them to settle down since they will now be responsible for another life (Luker 1994).

Given the importance of individual "choice" to this particular behavior, any effort to reduce teen pregnancy that does not take into account the reasoning that guides decision making is unlikely to succeed. Similarly, efforts to reduce the drop-out rate among Latinos or to improve the academic performance of African American males must begin by understanding the attitudes that influence how they perceive schooling and academic pursuits generally. To the extent that this does not happen and attempts to help Black males are based primarily on the sensibilities of those who initiate them, such efforts are unlikely to be effective and may be no more successful than campaigns that attempt to reduce drug use or violence by urging kids to "just say no".

Investigations into the academic orientation of Black male students must focus in particular on the ways in which the subjective and objective dimensions of identity related to race and gender are constructed within schools and how these in turn influence academic performance. Identity is necessarily at the center of such an analysis since it is on the basis of their identities that Black males are presumed to be at-risk, marginal and endangered, not just in school, but throughout American society (Taylor-Gibbs 1988, Kunjufu 1985, Anderson 1990). In addition, careful attention must be paid to the attitudes and styles of behavior that African American males engage in and produce, and how these in turn influence how they are seen and how they see themselves within school contexts. Writing on the general importance of identity to studies of schooling, Levinson, Foley and Holland argue that "...student identity formation within school is a kind of social practice and cultural production which both responds to, and simultaneously constitutes, movements, structures and discourses beyond school". (Levinson, 1996:12)

Recognizing that students can be both unfairly victimized by the labeling and sorting processes that occur within school, in addition to being harmed by the attitudes and behavior they adopt in relation to school, makes it important for us to have a better understanding of the factors that may enable them to resist these pressures and respond positively to various forms of assistance that may be provided to them within school or in the communities where they reside. By linking a focus on identity construction to an analysis of cultural production, it is my hope that we can gain greater insight into how schools can be changed and support programs can be designed which positively alter academic outcomes for African American males.

Identity and the Academic Performance of African American Males

It has long been recognized that schools are important sites of socialization. Schools are places where children learn how to follow instructions and obey rules, how to interact with others, and how to deal with authority (Spring 1994; Apple 1982). Schools are important sites for gender role socialization (Thorne 1993) and in most societies, they are primary sites for instruction about the values and norms associated with citizenship (Spring 1994; and Lowen 1995).

For many children, schools are also places where they learn about the meaning of race. This may occur through lesson plans adopted by teachers, but it is even more likely for children to learn about race through the hidden or informal curriculum (Apple 1982), and through non-structured school activities such as play.(Dyson,1994). Even when teachers do not speak explicitly about race and racial issues with children, children become aware of physical differences related to race quite early (Troyna and Carrington 1990). However, children do not become aware of the significance attached to these physical differences until they start to understand the ideological dimensions of race (Miles 1989) and become cognizant of differential treatment that appears to be based on race. Name calling, including the use of racial epithets, serve as one way of establishing racial boundaries even when children do not fully understand the meaning of the words that are used (Troyna and Carrington 1990). Similarly, school practices that isolate and separate children on the basis of race and gender, also send children important messages about the significance of race and racial differences (Dyson 1994; Thorne 1993). Schools certainly are not the only places where children formulate views about race, but because schools are often sites where children are more likely to encounter persons of another race or ethnic group, they play are central role in influencing the character of race relations in communities and the larger society (Peshkin 1991).

As young people enter adolescence, and as they begin developing a stronger sense of their individual identities (Erickson 1968), the meaning and significance of race also undergoes change. Where it was once an ambiguous concept based largely upon differences in physical appearance, language and styles of behavior, as children get older, they become more familiar with the historical, ideological and cultural dimensions of race (Tatum 1992; Cross 1991). Even children who once played and interacted freely across racial lines when they were younger, often experience a tightening of racial boundaries and racial identities as they get older and begin following patterns of interaction modeled by adults (Metz 1978; Peshkin 1991). As adolescents become clearer about the nature of their racial and gender identities, they begin to play a more active role in maintaining and policing these identities. Even more so than adults, peer groups play a major role in shaping identity because they typically play a primary role in shaping the way identities are constituted in particular settings (Steinberg 1996). Peer groups are also likely to impose negative sanctions upon those who violate what are perceived as established norms of behavior and who attempt to construct identities that deviate significantly from prevailing conceptions of racial and gender identity (Peshkin 1991).

However, despite the importance that several researchers have placed upon the role of peer groups in the socialization process (Fordham, 1996: Ogbu 1987; Solomon, 1992 Steinberg 1996), they are by no means the only forces that shape the social construction of identity within school. The structure and culture of schools also plays a major role in reinforcing and maintaining racial categories and the stereotypes associated with them. As schools sort children on perceived measures of their ability, and as they single out certain children for discipline, implicit and explicit messages about racial and gender identities are conveyed. To the degree that white or Asian children are disproportionately placed in gifted and honors classes, the idea that such children are inherently smarter may be inadvertently reinforced. Similarly, when African American and Latino children are over represented in remedial classes, special education programs, or on the lists for suspension or expulsion (Ferguson 1999), the idea that these children are not as smart or as well behaved also comes through. Such messages are conveyed even when responsible adults attempt to be as fair and impartial as possible in their handling of sorting and disciplinary activities. Because the outcomes of such practices often closely resemble larger patterns of success and failure that correspond with racial differences in American society, they invariably have the effect of reinforcing existing attitudes and beliefs about the nature and significance of race.

For African American males who are more likely than any other group to be subjected to negative forms of treatment in school, the message is clear: individuals of their race and gender may excel in sports, but not in math or history. The location of Black males within schools - in remedial classes or waiting for punishment outside the principal's office - and the roles they perform within school suggests that they are good at playing basketball or rapping, but debating, writing for the school newspaper or participating in the science club is strictly out of bounds. Such activities are out of bounds not just because Black males may perceive them as being inconsistent with who they think they are, but also because there simply are not enough examples of individuals who manage to participate in such activities without compromising their sense of self. Even when there are a small number of Black males who do engage in activities that violate established norms, precisely because they are seen as exceptions, their deviation from established patterns often places them under considerable scrutiny from their peers who are likely to regard their transgression of group norms as a sign of "selling out".

Researchers such as John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham, have attributed the marginality of Black students to oppositional behavior (Fordham 1996; Ogbu 1988). They argue that Black students hold themselves back out of fear that they will be ostracized by their peers. Yet, what these researchers fail to acknowledge is the dynamic that occurs between Black students, and males in particular, and the culture that is operative within schools. Black males may engage in behaviors that contribute to their under-achievement and marginality, but they are also more likely to be channeled into marginal roles and to be discouraged from challenging themselves by adults who are supposed to help them. Finally, and most importantly, Ogbu and Fordham fail to take into account the fact that some Black students, including males, find ways to overcome the pressures exerted upon them, and manage to avoid choosing between their racial and gender identity and academic success. Even if few in number, there are students who manage to maintain their identities and achieve academically without being ostracized by their peers. Understanding how such students navigate this difficult terrain may be the key to figuring out how to support the achievement of larger numbers of Black students.

A recent experience at a high school in the Bay Area illustrates how the interplay of these two socializing forces - peer groups and school sorting practices - can play out for individual students. I was approached by a Black male student who needed assistance with a paper on Huckleberry Finn that he was writing for his 11th grade English class. After reading what he had written I asked why he had not discussed the plight of Jim, the runaway slave who is one of the central characters of the novel. The student informed me that his teacher had instructed the class to focus on the plot and not to get into issues about race, since according to the teacher, that was not the main point of the story. He explained that two students in the class - both Black males - had objected to the use of the word "nigger" throughout the novel, and had been told by the teacher that if they insisted on making it an issue they would have to leave the course. Both of these students opted to leave the course even though it meant they would have to take another course that did not meet the college preparatory requirements. The student I was helping explained that since he needed the class he would just "tell the teacher what he wanted to hear." After our meeting I looked into the issue further and discovered that one student, a Black female, had chosen a third option - she stayed in the class but wrote a paper focused on race and racial injustice anyway, even though she knew it might result in her being penalized by the teacher.

This example reveals a number of important lessons about the intersection of identity, school practices and academic performance. Confronted by organizational practices which disproportionately place Black students in marginal roles and groupings, and pressure from peers which may undermine the importance attached to academic achievement, in many schools it will take considerable confidence and courage for Black students to succeed. In such a context, some may adopt what Fordham has described as a "raceless" persona to cope with these obstacles, however this is only one of many options that are available. Others may respond like the students who chose to leave the class with their identities intact but their academic prospects diminished, or like the student I assisted who chose to tell the teacher what he thought the teacher wanted to hear while privately holding on to a more critical perspective. Finally, a smaller number may behave like the female student in the class who challenged her teacher's instructions even though she knew she would be penalized. All of these are examples of ways students can actively resist succumbing to stereotypes. For those who seek to help Black students and males in particular, the challenge is to find ways to support their resistance to negative stereotypes and school sorting practices, and to make choosing failure a less likely option for them.

  • Part 3: Learning From Students and the Schools that Serve Them Well
  • Part 1: Introduction page

Published in In Motion Magazine February 11, 2001